Wednesday, July 14, 2010

5 or so questions with Sean Bishop, part 1

Today, we bring a new installment of 5 or so questions. 9L staffer Max Somers spoke with poet Sean Bishop via email about Bishop's poem "Letter to Toss from an Airborne Plane," which appears in the current issue of Ninth Letter. Here is an excerpt from the poem:

Dear Dead Dad: a birdlike therapist
demanded of me this letter. It's winter:

out on the tarmac sleet cakes the wings
of the morning's latest delays

and the terminal's filling with bodies and bodies
that only want to go. Outside Gate 2-A,

the mechanics have wrenched a gear from the plane,
squabbled, locked up, and walked off.

As mentioned above, the full poem can be found in the current issue, vol. 7, no. 1. Without further delay here is part one of Max Somers' interview with Sean Bishop.

9L: What is so arresting about your poem, “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane,” is its tone. More precisely, the range of tones makes this piece such a good read. On one hand, this elegy is very tender; on the other, it’s sarcastic and funny, nearly to the point of irreverence. Basically, the speaker has a good-sized chip on his shoulder. The line, “Dear Dead Dad, ” for instance, is a pretty severe way to begin a poem. Give me your best defense for the less than completely likeable speaker.

Sean Bishop: I've always been suspicious of the elegiac tendency toward praise—the impulse to end an elegy by celebrating either the life of the deceased or the experience of living in general—because it has never seemed honest or true to me. Witnessing the death of a loved one doesn't fill you with wonder or awe, after all; it puts a hole in you. Long, long after the death, while eating some toast or picking your nose, you're struck violently and out of the blue by the hard fact of that loved one's permanent absence. And while there's always an ounce of admiration and tenderness in those moments of recollection, they aren't (in whole) life-affirming experiences. At least not for me. Insisting otherwise is an odd convention of the elegiac mode, and one that I struggle against constantly.

From a craft perspective, though, I can see how the tendency toward praise is useful. In good poems, there's always a sizable gap between what a poem literally "says" and what it actually "means." Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" is an obvious and well-known example of this. It says, "the art of losing isn't hard to master," but it means just the opposite, and the poem will be anthologized for centuries because of the magnetic energy between those two poles. When we read an elegy, I think, what captures us first and foremost is the palpable hurt of the speaker, rather than his or her insistence that life goes on, or that the world is beautiful. On one level, we believe in that beauty; we believe that life goes on. And it does! But on another (maybe deeper) level, we share the speaker's pain. Most elegies derive their power from the reader's synthesis of these two truths.

In "Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane," I wanted to create a similar synthesizing effect without playing into the old death-affirming-life routine. What the poem "says" is "Dad, I miss you, here's what's happened since you left." But if you pay attention to the language, you're absolutely right to note that the poem is chock-full of resentment—for the dead father, for the therapist, for the uncle, and even for the surgeons! It felt dangerous to play sadness and bitterness against one another, rather than sadness and beauty, because both are fundamentally negative. I risked alienating my audience by throwing a big pity party, it's true, and I tried to temper that slightly through humor. But I think that readers want believability from their speakers more than they want likability, and I can only hope that my speaker is more believable, in some ways, than those of many other elegies.

9L: It’s tough to toe the gap between what one says and one means. Craft-wise, that sort of command of words might be one of the toughest tasks in writing poems. It takes work to write a nuanced piece. So, how do you approach the job? Are you a meticulous, scheduled kind of writer or are you winging it? What gets you in the “space” of a poem? Notebook or computer? Coffee of tea? Tons of drafts or one, slow, heavily-worked poem?

SB: It really varies from poem to poem. "Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane" actually happened with very little effort, and very few drafts. Some of my best work gets written that way, and I've given up trying to find the magic recipe to make it happen. I think it's a big mistake for writers—especially young writers, who tend to be the most interested in the mythical mystique of "the writer's life"—to believe they just need to find the right combination of cigarettes, caffeine, and ambient music, or the right sunny corner for their stark, Ikea desk; that somehow the material circumstances of production will lead to good poems. It won't. At least not beyond the obvious needs for patience and a relatively quiet environment. Everyone's process is different, but I'm not sure you can discover your own process by reading about those of others.

I might be wrong, though. So to answer your question more directly: I'd say I'm extremely meticulous but not at all scheduled (I'm still trying to block out mandatory "writing hours" every morning, and I'm starting to think I'll never be able to stick to it). I tend to use a notebook for the first draft or two, because it makes it harder for me to second-guess and delete what I just put on the page (a big problem for me), but then I use a computer for later revisions. I tend to write a lot, a lot, a lot of drafts—printing them, gluing them into my notebook, adding and deleting lines by pen, relineating and repunctuating, often only to go back and reinstitute the original lineation and punctuation. I don't like to admit it, but the act of writing, itself, is actually not very enjoyable to me. That's an understatement. It's excruciating—full of self-doubt and frustration. It's like getting tattooed, maybe; the process isn't a barrel of fun, but I like the results so much that I go back and do it again. Once I finish a poem, though, it's hard for me to start a new one. I sometimes go months without writing or revising anything at all, and I envy those poets who constantly churn out new work, and who require very little revision beyond a second or third draft.

Part two will be posted on Friday. Things discussed in the next installment include: working through grief, tattoos, and life after an MFA.

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